Good morning, it's Wednesday, April 22, 2020, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Even ardent environmentalists couldn't have foreseen how we're experiencing the iconic day this year: a pandemic-induced lockdown that is affording our beloved planet an unprecedented break from the taxing tumult of modern human activity.
This respite is neither complete nor permanent and the reasons for it are not idealism but self-preservation. Nonetheless, this is a fitting time to take stock of our blessings -- chief among them God's green earth -- and to contemplate the insightful observation of 20th century British economist Barbara Ward. "We have forgotten how to be good guests," she said, "how to walk lightly on the earth, as its other creatures do."
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Gaylord Nelson was born on June 4, 1916 in Clear Lake, Wis., to parents who today would be on the front lines fighting coronavirus: His father was a country doctor, his mother a nurse. But their son, who had little interest in medicine, had a political pedigree and this was where his future lay. After graduating from San Jose State College, he returned to Wisconsin for law school. His plan was to follow in the footsteps of his hero, crusading liberal Sen. Robert La Follette. World War II intervened. Nelson enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 and soon found himself commanding a company of African American soldiers. Their second-class treatment informed an already active social conscience, and he was with those troops on Okinawa when the war ended in 1945.
Nelson returned to his native state and entered his chosen profession. His great-grandfather had been a founding member of the Republican Party. His father was a small-town mayor as well as a physician and when Gaylord was 9, his dad took him to a rally where "Fighting Bob" La Follette spoke to a crowd from the back of a train. On the way home, Gaylord's father asked him if the experience had made him want to go into politics when he grew up.
"Yes," the boy replied. "But I'm afraid by the time I grow up Bob La Follette will have settled all the problems and there will be nothing for me to do."
After briefly practicing law in Madison, Nelson served in the state legislature as a Democrat and then as governor, earning national plaudits for his conservation efforts. He won a U.S. Senate seat in 1962, and discovered when he arrived on Capitol Hill that Sen. La Follette had left plenty for him to do. Nelson's dual passions became "poverty and pollution" and he successfully urged President Kennedy to discuss environmental protection on a coast-to-coast tour.
Nelson's crusade was nearly drowned out by the political furor surrounding the Vietnam War, which he came to oppose. Along the way, a specific tactic of the peace activists -- college-based "teach-ins" -- gave him an inspiration: Why not adopt that method for environmental issues?
Speaking to Seattle conservationists in 1969, Nelson called for a nationwide grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment the following spring. He invited everyone to participate. "The response was electric," he recalled in 2005. "Telegrams, letters, and telephone inquiries poured in from all across the country. The American people finally had a forum to express concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes, and air -- and they did so with spectacular exuberance."
Linda Billings and John Heritage, two of Nelson's Senate aides, responded to the inquiries that flooded his Washington office. Marching orders were sought from college campuses, conservation groups, municipal governments, and environmental action clubs that sprang up overnight at U.S. high schools.
Newly relocated from California to Northern Virginia at that time, I belonged to one of those high school groups. Did we know what we were doing? Yes and no. Our first activity was to participate in a march to block the construction of Interstate 66 in Arlington. Today, that road carries thousands of cars in and out of Washington each day, mine among them (when we're not in lockdown). It's currently being expanded, and a Metro line parallels the road.
So, let's admit that preserving the Earth while pursuing a high quality of life is an elusive and often inconsistent quest. Another lesson learned along the way is that environmental-motivated constraints are less popular -- and less easily attained -- if they come from top-down mandates by the government. Gaylord Nelson always knew that.
"Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level," he recalled later. "We had neither the time nor the resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself."
Nelson lost his Senate seat in the 1980 GOP landslide led by Ronald Reagan, but he never lost his zeal for public service. He went to work for The Wilderness Society and in 1995 was honored for a lifetime of public service with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
"As the father of Earth Day, he is the grandfather of all that grew out of that event -- the Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act," Bill Clinton said at the White House ceremony. "He also set a standard for people in public service to care about the environment and to try to do something about it."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.